Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Chimney and Private Life

In modern times, people largely underestimate the significance of the chimney in their home.The fireplace is more of an aesthetic feature in today's home, and with the advent of central heating systems, the fireplace is no longer a household essential as it was for people in the past before electricity and central heating.

But who would of thought, that the very idea of multiple story single family homes and the "upstairs" was made possible by the chimney?

Earlier this week, Author and Historian Bill Bryson sat down with Renee Montagne on NPR's Morning Edition to discuss his latest book "At Home: A Short History of Private Life". Bryson discussed the influence of the fireplace and the chimney on revolutionizing the very essence of private life. The following is an excerpt from the interview:

"MONTAGNE: And you started the book with the part of the house that we hardly ever think of today. We merely pass through it - the hall.
Mr. BRYSON: The hall, yeah. I mean, I'd always wondered a little bit about that way. You know, hall denotes important spaces in the wider world, you know, Hall of Fame or Carnegie Hall - that kind of thing. And yet in our own homes, it's this dinky room that's the most demoted room in the house because at one time the hall house was the hall. I mean, originally in the middle ages, the house was just a single room with perhaps a couple of annex rooms - a kitchen - off of it. But most living was done in the great hall.
MONTAGNE: Right. I mean, people slept together, basically, in the same space. In fact, there's a wonderful moment when we discover that make a bed - it doesn't mean to put sheets and towels, and the lovely linens on it; it literally meant make a bed.
Mr. BRYSON: Yeah, I mean, you know, originally, you either rolled out a kind of cloth pallet or you just kind of heaped straw and put a blanket down on top of it, and that was it. You know, you sort of made a bed for yourself for the night. It was a much more fluid and informal arrangement that we are used to now.
MONTAGNE: Now, when the house was still a hall, it was warmed by an open hearth, which had some really distinct disadvantages. For instance, you write that it was like having a permanent bonfire in the middle of the living room.
Mr. BRYSON: Well, it's essentially what it was. I mean, there were no chimneys up until about the 14th century. What you did is you had an open fire and all the smoke just kind of leaked out a hole in the roof. And an open, you know, fire in the middle of a room, radiates heat much better than a fireplace does, but it also meant that there was a lot of smoke and sparks and things drifting about.
MONTAGNE: When chimneys came into being and you got the hearth out of the middle of the room, what did that mean in terms of how people lived?
Mr. BRYSON: Well, it had one really, really huge revolutionary effect, which was that all this roof space that used to be taken up and filled with smoke would have been unlivable. That was now comparatively clean and so people could move up there. And it really meant that people could start thinking about building an upstairs. From that point, they started to discover the whole concept of privacy and having space of your own.
MONTAGNE: And then, you know, language took this up. You describe the names of some of the rooms. Tell us about some of the rooms.
Mr. BRYSON: All kinds. It was study and boudoir and cabinet and the closet and all these other words all began to come into the language."
To read or listen to the entire interview go to
So every night before you go up those stairs to rest after a long work day, consider how that living room fireplace has made it possible for you and others to have your private upstairs rooms and show it some love with an annual inspection and cleaning so that you can enjoy it with friends and family during the winter!

1 comment:

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